It’s both fun and rewarding to explain why things are bad—whether the issue at hand is Goop’s peddling of pseudoscience or Gucci’s choice to have runway models mosey down the catwalk carrying replicas of their own heads.
It is much harder to satisfactorily describe why something is good. This is a particular challenge when it comes to television, which is overwhelmingly good these days, to the extent that it’s impossible not to feel entertainment FOMO.
And so, in the age of peak TV, it makes sense to celebrate not just the best shows of 2018, but the best television moments—the kinds of cathartic, narratively masterful scenes that launch a thousand Reddit threads, GIFs, and excited group texts. After all, it’s easier to convey what makes a show special when we avoid general praise and wade deep into the realm of the specific. With that in mind, here are a few of Quartz’s favorite TV moments of 2018—from the unexpected sweetness of a serenade on Schitt’s Creek to the world’s tensest shared meals in Homecoming and Killing Eve.
It could have been so bleak. In the season finale of Netflix’s coming-of-age series about teens in South Central Los Angeles, two characters have been shot—caught in the crossfire of gang violence. With lives in the balance, the show could have easily opted to go out on a dark, gripping cliffhanger.
But while On My Block doesn’t shy away from depicting poverty, violence, and racism, it’s also a fundamentally hopeful, warm-hearted show. So in the last minute of the episode, the camera pans away from the sirens and ambulances to give us a very different kind of finale: Jamal (Brett Grey), the goofiest teen of the bunch, pedaling furiously on his bike through the dark. He’s dirt-smudged and breathless, his expression unusually serious. And with him? The bag full of buried treasure that he’s been hunting for fruitlessly and—we thought—pointlessly all season long. It’s a moment straight out of a Steven Spielberg movie: You know exactly how sentimental it is, complete with fireworks breaking out in the sky and the fast, triumphant strings of the hip-hop song “Bottle Rocket” accompanying Jamal as he speeds down the street, stray dollar bills fluttering out of his overstuffed bag. And it doesn’t matter, because you still want to cheer and hug your loved ones. Somehow, Jamal is going to save the goddamn day. —Sarah Todd
Schitt’s Creek, a Canadian sitcom about an affluent family that’s newly broke and slumming it in a backwater town, created easily the most romantic moment of TV in 2018. I dare anyone to watch Patrick serenade David during season four without smiling, or crying.
In the episode, David (played by Daniel Levy, who co-created and stars in the show with his father Eugene Levy) and his relatively new boyfriend and business partner Patrick are looking for ways to make their upscale general store seem more approachable to the residents of the small town. Patrick suggests an open mic night to David, a big-city transplant, who finds the idea rather kitschy, but reluctantly agrees. He’s unaware that Patrick also intends to perform.
At first, David is mortified at the prospect of his boyfriend serenading him in front of the whole town. Then, Patrick starts to play.
Noah Reid, who plays Patrick, has the voice of an angel, or rather a “butter-voiced beau,” as David’s mother, Moira, says. And the song, Tina Turner’s “The Best,” is surprisingly romantic if you listen to the lyrics. The acoustic version that Patrick performs, which Reid developed himself, is even more lovely. Patrick performs it with eyes locked on David’s, whose reaction moves from an embarrassed grimace to a heartwarming smile. Like David and Patrick’s relationship, it’s a tender, beautiful expression of love between two people—something we don’t get enough of on TV. —Ashley Rodriguez
The sixth episode of Atlanta’s second season begins in a way that seems innocuous enough. Screwball-philosopher Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) buys a baseball cap in a gas station, then drives a U-haul to pick up a free piano. On his way, he listens to Stevie Wonder’s “Sweet Little Girl,” a song that is, well, sweet—until the very last line, which takes a dark turn and undermines everything that came before it.
That unsettling moment is mirrored a few minutes into the episode, when Darius is let into the home of a man we come to know as Teddie Perkins (played by Donald Glover in whiteface makeup), who recognizes what Darius was listening to in his truck, and says, in a disconcerting, tremulous voice, “I love Stevie.” Then Teddie invites Darius into the parlor to share a soft-boiled ostrich egg. (“It’s called an Owl’s Casket,” Teddie says.) He then proceeds to rather gleefully break open the gigantic egg with a tiny mallet. The scene is uncanny; everything feels just a bit off. Teddie uses a telecom system to speak to a butler who doesn’t exist; there’s an untouched goblet of wine on the table between the two of them. It’s horrific, not in a manipulative jump-scare way, but in a way that forces a chill to settle deeply in your bones and never leave. At this point you may recall that the hat Darius bought wasn’t a Hawks, or Braves, or Falcons cap—it had a confederate flag and the phrase “Southern Made” sewn onto it, which he sharpied over so that it read “U Mad.” In other words, nothing here is actually innocuous. —Elijah Wolfson
Killing Eve is the story of Eve (Sandra Oh), a British agent who has been working tirelessly to catch an assassin bumping off powerful people across Europe. So something already feels eerie when, in the show’s fifth episode, Eve slips on a dress sent to her by none other than the assassin herself.
The dress fits perfectly, of course. But what’s most remarkable is that, by putting it on in private and studying herself in the mirror, Eve tacitly acknowledges that she feels the same kind of fascination and attraction for her nemesis, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), as Villanelle feels for Eve.
It makes sense that the scene that follows brings the viewer face-to-face with the tension between detective and assassin. Eve, still wearing the dress, walks into her kitchen only to find Villanelle seated at the kitchen table.
Yes, Villanelle broke in, but, no, she’s not there to kill Eve—though Eve tries to discreetly grab a knife from a drawer should the situation take a turn. Villanelle just wants to have dinner. Eve may be dressed far too nicely to be eating some reheated shepherd’s pie, but the meal is the perfect vehicle to show how the characters have become fixated on one another, and put their complex power dynamic on display. —Alexandra Ossola
This Japanese reality TV show offers a fascinating window into the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture when it comes to love, race, and gender—though foreign viewers may find some cultural norms problematic. The current cycle, set in the snowy mountainscapes of Karuizawa, felt particularly awkward at times. In one episode, the sexist attitudes of the men in the household were laid bare following the arrival of a full-chested erotic model. In another incident, a man forced a 31-year-old woman on the show—the butt of many jokes because of her singledom, love of drinking, and uncommon exuberance—to kiss him, a move that was almost celebrated by other members in the house.
So it came as a relief at the end of a particularly controversial season when a new male cast member made his debut: an aspiring makeup artist who professed that he was interested in both men and women. It’s a bold move in a country that remains extremely conservative, and for a TV show that has built its reputation as a place where young, beautiful Japanese can go and find heterosexual romance. It’s time for a new script. —Isabella Steger
In HBO’s miniseries, Camille (Amy Adams) spends most of her time protecting herself from her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson). But in the twisty last episode, Camille joins her sister Amma (Eliza Jane Scanlen) in literally drinking in their mother’s poison in order to out her as having Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
The scene moves fluidly from mythic (Amma channeling Persephone in Hades) to nostalgic (Camille remembering, or hallucinating, moments with her long-dead sister) to horrific (as Camille and Amma are pulled back from the brink of death). The performances by Clarkson, Adams, and Scanlen keep your body taut and bend your mind as you navigate the mystery and horror. It’s beautifully grotesque Southern Gothic at its best, with little respite or release, even when the sisters are saved. —Holly Ojalvo
Homecoming is a series dominated by moments of crushing anxiety and Hitchcockian paranoia. So it’s all the more surprising that its best scene is just two people calmly chatting in a diner.
Heidi (Julia Roberts), a former case worker at the shadowy “Homecoming” facility for US veterans, travels to Fish Camp, California, where she hopes to reconnect with her former patient, Walter (Stephan James), a soldier whose memory has been badly impaired by the facility’s experimental drug. It’s at a quaint, roadside haunt in this sleepy town near Yosemite where Heidi finds him. Neither Heidi nor the audience knows if he’ll remember her.
He doesn’t. Or at least he acts like he doesn’t. James plays the scene to absolute perfection—you can watch it countless times and have a different read on his lines every time. We’re not quite sure if he genuinely doesn’t remember her or if he’s pretending not to. When Heidi realizes that Walter is finally at peace in this new life, she decides not to say or do anything that might trigger his memories. And then something incredible happens.
Walter—either subconsciously or intentionally, we don’t know—moves Heidi’s row of utensils that she had compulsively aligned in parallel lines. It’s what he used to do with the pens on her desk years ago at Homecoming, just to mess with her. Heidi doesn’t notice until he’s already left the diner. As Iron & Wine’s “The Trapeze Swinger” plays us out, Heidi is left wondering if this means Walter had remembered her the whole time. Or maybe he didn’t, maybe it’s just that there’s some small piece of him and their connection that no drug, however powerful, can ever take away. —Adam Epstein
The imaginative retelling of Shirley Jackson’s classic horror novel lulled us all into a comfortable sense of unease tinged with dismay and compassion. “No, it’s not really horror,” we said to our skeptical friends, as we cruised through the first seven episodes. “You should watch it, it’s more like a comment on mental illness. It’s spooky, not really scary.”
Sure, getting up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom would bring to mind images of the Bent-Neck Lady and cause you to wonder whether adult diapers might be worth it. And yes, the chill in your bones brought on by the gradual unraveling of Olivia Crain’s otherwise perfect mother figure would cause you to grab your heaviest throw blanket. But for the most part, the show created a sense of trust that it would definitely not hit you with a jump scare so intense that you and your partner would both scream, send the dog flying, and have to pause for at least five minutes until your hearts slowed down to its normal pace and you truly wish you’d gone ahead and pulled the trigger on the adult diaper situation.
The show’s creators took their sweet time getting to this point of truly vulnerable fear, and if they hadn’t, it wouldn’t have worked quite so effectively. There was no creepy music to give us a heads-up. No closing of a mirrored medicine cabinet door to reveal a ghost in the reflection. And no indications earlier in the show that this is where your adrenaline would be headed, whatsoever.
The problem is, the remaining episodes have you on so much of an edge, now that you’ve learned never to trust screenwriters ever again. But the show’s finale epically fails to top that one moment. —Susan Howson
When it comes to television’s generally dismal diversity issues, Native American actors are some of the least-represented populations. So after a snoozefest of a season, seeing an entire episode of Westworld dedicated to indigenous narratives was a saving grace.
This episode, “Kiksuya,” retells the whole story of Westworld from an indigenous perspective. It’s told through the eyes of Ghost Nation member Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), who up until now has been portrayed as a silent observer, sometimes benevolent, sometimes bloodthirsty. And wouldn’t you know it—it turns out he knows more about the creation and intentions of the park than any Host could conjure. But of course, like in life outside the park, no one has ever heeded him attention. The episode was a reminder that although Silicon Valley loves to depict itself as the great disruptor and the ultimate creator, there are people who have already walked these dusty roads before us. And perhaps if we stopped wrapping ourselves in the cold, mechanical embrace of innovation and listened to them, we’d learn something about ourselves. (Read more about my thoughts on this episode here.) —Georgia Frances King
The Man in the High Castle is a number of things—an alternative history about the Nazis winning the war, a work of science fiction about multiple universes. But it’s also a fascinating study about power and its corrupting influences.
One of the show’s most intriguing subplots concerns John Smith (Rufus Sewell), a former US army officer who switched sides and joined the Nazis, rising to become a leader in Germany’s occupation of the US. A ruthless bureaucrat, he’s also a suburban family man, and dotes on his children, particularly his eldest son, Thomas. But in Season 2, Thomas is found to have a genetic disease, and in the world of Nazi eugenics where Josef Mengele is still alive, that makes him undesirable, and so he is executed, as his parents looked on.
The sacrifice of his son to the Nazi cause elevates Smith in the eyes of the state, even as it destroys Helen (Chelah Horsdal), his wife. Over the course of Season 3—with the family now living in a lavish New York City apartment decorated with tasteful swastika bookshelves—Helen begins to unravel as Smith consolidates his power and is promoted by Heinrich Himmler, the man who succeeded Hitler as Germany’s Fuhrer. Smith is sympathetic and tries to help, finding Helen a psychotherapist. But her erratic behavior does not go unnoticed by Himmler, who instructs Smith to keep his house in order.
The overtones are clear: Smith must choose between his family and his duty to the Reich, and it appears Helen may be a casualty of his ambition. The tension builds when a Nazi nurse arrives to test the Smith’s eldest daughter to the genetic condition. Helen flees with her children instead, and John arrives to an empty house. Distraught, he searches for his missing family, until the phone rings and Helen, calling form a roadside phone booth, informs John that she wasn’t just escaping the nurse. “I love you John,” she says into the phone, “but I was running away from you.” —Oliver Staley
The Queer Eye reboot from Netflix has a lot of strong contenders for reality-TV moment of the year. But my choice is the episode in which the Fab Five take on their first gay makeover—AJ Brown, a badly dressed civil engineer with a leather harness in his closet and a handsome boyfriend his family doesn’t know about.
Helping AJ come out to his family is part of the challenge. AJ’s father died before he could talk to him about his sexuality, and while he’s close to his stepmother, he’s still in the closet.
The makeover is a success—but the big moment is when AJ sits his stepmother down in his freshly redecorated bedroom and tells her he’s gay. The camera zooms in tight on his impossibly open and hopeful face. There’s a long pause, and then we see her hand caress his cheek. They collapse into an awkward embrace, strands of her waist-length hair catching in his beard and fresh buzz cut. They’re crying, in shared grief for the loss of his father, in relief, and in joy, too. It’s maybe the most intimate thing I’ve ever seen on television—and when it was over, I was sweatily weeping as though I had just had an intense and difficult conversation with someone I loved myself. —Annaliese Griffin